Interview with agnès films member Barb Morrison, score composer for Concussion

Copy Editing and Posting by Alexandra Hidalgo

This interview is part of our triple feature on the film Concussion. Please check out our interview with director Stacie Passon and producer Rose Troche and Moira Sullivan’s review of the film.

How did you become involved with Concussion and what attracted you to this film?
I had already done two projects with [producer] Rose [Troche]—The Safety of Objects and the pilot for the L Word. She called me and gave me the description of what the movie was about and asked if I could meet [director] Stacie [Passon]. When Stacie and I met there was an immediate click. We just understood each other right off the bat. Directors can sometimes be a challenge to work with because they don’t have a clear vision of what they’re looking for, but Stacie was very, very focused on what she wanted. That’s always very attractive for me as a composer. Maybe it’s the record producer in me, but I love to take an artist’s idea and just run with it. Stacie is also really funny and smart, so that was a plus as well.

Barb at the studio

Barb at Blue Microphones Studio House of Rock in Los Angeles (Photo by Brian Walnum)

You have composed scores for several films, The Safety of Objects and G, as well as for the TV series FutureStates, how did those experiences prepare you for and differ from your work on Concussion?
Everything I’ve done along the way has prepared me for whatever comes next. The Safety of Objects taught me a lot about what not to do, actually. The score in that movie is a little more heavy-handed than something I’d do now. Throughout the years I’ve noticed that the most powerful scores are the ones that enhance the story. By the time I got to composing for “FutureStates: Elliot King Is Third,” I was going about it in a more stripped down fashion. Concussion was more about composing beds of textures to darken or lighten the scenes. I tried to keep the melodies more simple and just used layers to heighten the emotions and vibe.

Can you tell us about your process for composing the score?
My “idea-making” starts from the very first conversation I have with the director. I take notice of body language and tone of voice—the way they describe things. I almost use their descriptions as the instruments themselves and just jump off from there. A storyteller will usually give you all the highs and lows you need to know about if you just truly listen to and key in on the dynamics of what they’re saying. After the initial conversations Stacie and I had, she was pretty forthcoming about vibe and even melodies. I remember one phone call we had and she sang this melody over the phone. It was awesome. She said, “I’m not really a musician but I’m hearing something like ________ (and then she sang this melody).” It was beautiful and I turned it into one of the main themes throughout the score.

Barb with the cast and crew of Concussion

Barb with Team Concussion at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco

Besides composing film scores, you are a successful producer who has worked with Blondie and Pink, how do the roles of composer and producer differ from each other and what intersections have you found between them?
Pop, rock, dance or hip hop songs are three-minute stories—kinda like a journal entry or just one emotion getting across. A film score has an arc of an entire journey—90 minutes or so. With a film you’re dealing with weeks, months or years of a story, whereas with a pop song you’re usually just getting one sentiment off your chest. Also in a film score you might be telling a few different people’s stories within one movie. So it’s a very different thing to wrap your head around that type of composing. I like both for sure. There’s a really fun challenge in both styles of storytelling.

As you work on a score, in which ways does the visual style of the film influence the music you create?
The darkness and light that the director and cinematographer use always dictates what type of score will fit best. It’s pretty much pre-composition, in my opinion. If you go against that grain, it will almost always come out awkward. I look at the music like a sculpture. I like to chop away at what’s already there and find out what can be revealed inside of it. I take notes from what the director and cinematographer have already done. They’ve already set up the emotion. It’s up to me to get inside that and pull it out even more.

Your score for Concussion stays in the background, highlighting the emotional power of key scenes without intruding on our viewing experience. How do you choose which scenes need to be scored?
It’s always a collaboration between the director and me, and in the case of Concussion, Rose also had a lot of input on where there should be music. I’m also a big fan of using silence in a score. So I always give the film one or two viewings where I actually place silence where I think it should go. Silence can be powerful. Another thing I like to do is assign a theme or instrumentation to certain characters, then I go through the film and decide where these voices should be heard.

You have performed as a musician for almost three decades, and Abby, the character played by Robin Weigert, becomes a performer herself when she starts working as an escort. Did you draw from those connections as you developed the score for the film?
That’s an interesting question. I really related to her character in the film. It wasn’t so much about her being a performer as it was about her being a flawed human that was just trying to get along in the world. I think everybody is walking around confused about life and always trying to figure out what they can do to make it more interesting, more passionate, more important, more, more, more. I loved that at the end of the film, Stacie left it kind of open ended about what Abby would actually go on to do. I remember discussing this with her and we both had totally different opinions about her outcome. I love stories like that. I think that’s what all great art should do—make you think about what it means to you. Robin was so believable in showing us that she was navigating, trying to feel OK in her own skin as Abby. She really let the viewer into that kind of vulnerability. That kind of art crosses over through so many venues—writing, acting, singing, painting—so I really just took Robin’s cues and built the emotion in the score from her.

Barb at Soundtrack Studios NYC (photo by Kris Kaczor)

Concussion explores a lesbian housewife’s search for a sense of purpose and sexual fulfillment. Do you think that being in the LGBT community influenced the way in which you related to the film as you wrote the score?
I don’t think my gender or sexuality influenced how I scored it but I do think being in a long(ish)-term relationship and understanding grappling with fidelity and life direction lent a hand in the themes I used. There’s a heaviness or darkness to the questions and challenges that came Abby’s way. I think anyone in a long-term relationship can relate. The story could’ve easily been told with a straight couple as the leads roles. It’s really a story about marriage and fidelity in general. Everyone questions those things from time to time no matter what gender or sexuality they are.

You have been the subject of various video interview features and of the documentary Harly Loco and Blue Microphones Present Barb Morrison. How did your own experiences being in front of the camera affect your work on Concussion?
My experience on stage, being in front of a camera or just being a performer always solidifies my decision about turning my life and career over to the opposite. I absolutely love being behind the scenes. I’m better at helping someone tell their story and seeing the big picture than being in the spotlight myself. When I was in bands and writing songs for myself all the time, it was hard to pull the camera back and see it all. There’s a great Charlie Chaplin quote about life and silent film techniques: “life is a tragedy in close-up and a comedy in long-shot.” A scenario can be intense and overly dramatic if you get too close to it, but in hindsight or seen from another point of view, you can actually laugh about it.

Do you have any advice for musicians, filmmakers, and artists—especially women—interested in composing film scores?
The only advice I can give to any artist is to just truly listen to yourself and your instincts. Someone I really look up to once told me: if it sounds right, then it is right. No school or lessons can ever tell you any different.

If you want to read more about Concussion, check our interview with director Stacie Passon and producer Rose Troche and Moira Sullivan’s review. You can also visit Barb‘s and Alexandra‘s profiles to learn more about them.